Fred Rogers Family Farm

It was Oct. 16, 1872, when a large fire cut a swath from Hutchinson to Biscay. “Great clouds of smoke darkened the sky and red tongues of flames darted hundreds of feet into the air,” recalled Fred Rogers. He, left, is pictured on the Rogers family farm with Christina Hoenke Rogers, Henrietta Rogers Laible and George Rogers.

It was autumn in 1869. W.J. Sherburne had just moved to the Lake Addie area. He and his family commenced to farming. Like most farmers of the time, Sherburne had a large crop of wheat set in stacks out in his field. Unfortunately, the weather that year was very wet and prolonged rains caused W.J. to gather his wheat stacks, tear them down, and try to dry them out in his barn. He was unsuccessful and the wheat spoiled.

Fall eventually turned to winter, and then to spring. Sherburne butchered several hogs that spring, but the weather once again turned against him. Spring temps began to soar, and the rains stopped. The climate caused W. J’s butchered hogs to spoil in the heat. Coupled with the loss of the previous year’s crop, the two setbacks were devastating for the family, but the worst was yet to come.

The summer of 1870 was hot and dry. Farmers across Minnesota suffered from the conditions. Large swaths of prairie were scorched by the unforgiving sun, wells went dry, and the underbrush and leaves that covered the woodland floor looked like tinder.

As it was nearly every summer, farmers kept a watchful eye for prairie fires. In 1870, however, it was less a matter of if as it was when. Small fires began popping up across the region and settlers began keeping pails and barrels of water at the ready to fight a fire in a moment’s notice. Those who recalled the summer remarked that the sky was often filled with smoke plumes.

The day finally came when a large prairie fire swept into McLeod County. The Sherburne farm and several others were targeted by the searing flames that swept across the prairie. Entire sections burned as dry hay was stacked in the fields. In the sloughs and marshland, the cattails smoldered down to the boggy peat from which they grew. The fire soon made its way to W.J Sherburne’s farm. It swept through his fields and into his yard. Luckily, his wife and daughter were not home, yet he and his son barely escaped. They made a mad dash to the middle of a plowed field while the fire swept around them. When it was over, all that was left was a blackened, scorched earth that resembled little of the farm and wilderness that was once there. The family lost 12 hogs, 200 chickens, 500 pounds of butter, 200 bushels of corn, and 100 bushels of small grain stored in their granary. All that remained were the clothes on their backs and their cattle, which were out to pasture. When it was over, the fire burned a swath of land five miles wide.

The drought of 1870 was tough, yet Mother Nature looked to give no reprieve over the next two years. The summer of 1871 was again hot and dry, and although no large-scale fires swept through the region, small, localized fires still caused a menace on the prairie and in the woods. In 1872 the hot and dry weather returned; this time, however, several large fires took a toll on the region. One farm in Penn Township was destroyed, and in October a large fire cut a swath from Hutchinson to Biscay.

The Rogers family lived near present day Biscay. On Oct. 16, a neighbor came to warn them of a fire that was wreaking havoc to the northwest and was heading toward their farms — large billows of smoke could be seen rolling hundreds of feet into the air. The fire started north of Hutchinson, swept around the community, and jumped across the Crow River. Fred Rogers recalled the conditions as the fire neared his parents' farm.

"It had leaped the river a few miles above us and was sweeping down through the dry brush and timber. Great clouds of smoke darkened the sky and red tongues of flames darted hundreds of feet into the air. Sparks flew everywhere. Our clothing caught fire from them while we tried to do something to save our buildings and stock. Suddenly the flames leapt across a ploughed field, 10 rods wide, and at 10 o’clock, just two hours after we received the warning, the fire reached our home."

The following year, in 1873, the horrid conditions released their grip on the area. For the farmers of McLeod County, however, it would be a short reprieve. In July of 1874, a swarm of locusts, one so large that it appeared as a storm front on the horizon, descended on nearly all central and southern Minnesota. The “grasshopper plague” would become such a menace that state aid was needed for the farmers of Minnesota, and it would be another three years before they could put their hardships behind them.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1-4 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. Admission is free. For more information, call the museum at 320-587-2109.